NHL: Pittsburgh Penguins at Washington Capitals Preview

alex ovechkinWith less than 20 games left in the regular season, playoff positioning is on the line. For the Metropolitan Division-leading Pittsburgh Penguins, a postseason berth is all but assured. The Washington Capitals however are currently a bubble team. A win against the Penguins on Monday may be a tough ask but it would go a long way to lifting their playoff chances (7:00pm ET)

Winning with Special Teams

When it comes to hockey, special teams play is one of the most important factors. The best teams in the league and the ones that ultimately go on to win the Stanley Cup often do so as a result of a great powerplay or penalty kill. Luckily for the Penguins, they have both.

Pittsburgh has been the best team in the NHL year on both the power play and penalty kill. At a nearly 26% success rate in goal scoring the Penguins have been dominant in this facet of the game. It has given the team a noticeable edge as overall 28% of Pittsburgh’s 194 goals have come on the power play.

However if it was just the powerplay success, it is reasonable to expect that the Capitals would be better than fifth in the same division.

Washington is second in the NHL in powerplay success rate as the team converts on 23% of opportunities. Overall, the Capitals actually have a higher percentage of their goals coming via the powerplay though, as nearly 31% of their goals are via special teams play.

The big different between the two teams though is that, as mentioned, the Penguins are also the best team on the penalty kill, stopping over 82% of power play shots. The Capitals meanwhile are just 23rd in the same category. And even though their defense has stopped 80.5% of shots, the seemingly 1.5% discrepancy between those numbers and Pittsburgh’s numbers, can and has made all the difference.

Battle of Stars

Ever since the 2005 NHL season which welcomed Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin (pictured above) into the league, the two have been bitter rivals and rightfully so. The pair have reinvigorated the Caps/Pens rivalry and has made it one of the best to watch in the Eastern Conference.

The rivalry began at the 2005 World Junior Championships where Crosby and Team Canada defeated Ovechkin and Team Russia to win the gold medal. As expected, that rivalry continued as the two first overall draft picks (Ovechkin in 2004 and Crosby in 2005) made their NHL debuts.

While both young stars, the duo play different brands of hockey. Ovechkin, who won the rookie of the year with 52 goals and 106 total points is a prototypical Russian player. He plays a smash mouth brand of hockey and is quite flashy as well as physical.

Crosby is also a prolific goal-scorer but he does so with more finesse and less physicality. Crosby is famously known for his aversion to the fighting side of the game and unlike Ovechkin, still has all of his teeth. Both players get the job done though and continue to do so.

This year, Ovechkin looks like the frontrunner for the MVP. He leads the NHL in goals with 44 and power play goals with 18. Crosby however leads the league in points. He only has 29 goals but with a league leading 55 assists, has 17 more points than Ovechkin. Notably he also has a +/- of +7 which is about average while Ovechkin’s is a horribly low -25.

As it turns out, Crosby’s lack of goals has actually benefitted the Penguins this year. As opposed to the Capitals who have just Ovechkin as a 20-goal scorer, the Penguins have two in addition to Crosby and Evgeni Malkin who has 19. Malkin also has huge assist numbers though and is second on the team with 45.

Washington does have a guy feeding Ovechkin the puck by the name of Nicklas Backstrom (50 assists) but the problem is there is no one Ovechkin is dishing to. He only has 23 assists which is ranked tied for fourth on the team and would be ranked seventh if he played for Pittsburgh.

Goaltending Glory

Another reason why the Penguins have had a modicum more success than the Capitals is because of their goaltending. Once again, it is Marc-Andre Fleury, the nine year veteran, who is leading the way and helping Pittsburgh stand in first place.

Fleury has saved almost 92% of shots he has faced this year and has a record of 33-14-3, both of which are top ten in the league. His GAA (goals against average) is top 20.

The Capitals meanwhile have had a goal tending issue most of the season. Their primary goaltender Braden Holtby has a record of 19-14-3 with a GAA of 2.98 and a save percentage of just over 91. Again, it is the small discrepancy in those percentages that makes the difference between Fleury being a good goalie and Holtby being a guy who might lose his job.

Washington just recalled Philipp Grubauer from the AHL Hershey Bears and he is expected to get some more starts as the season winds down. His GAA of 2.38 and save percentage of close to 93 are better than Holtby.

Having better goaltending will definitely be beneficial to the Capitals and Washington can only hope that Grubauer can fill that void.

Penguins vs Capitals Betting Picks Verdict

The Penguins are seen as the far superior team and they have defeated the Capitals in both of their previous meetings. But this is the first of a back-to-back home and home for these two teams and as their history shows, anything can happen.

Pittsburgh has the goaltending advantage and the power play/penalty kill edge. They have both scored and assisted on more total goals. However, there is the matter of Ovechkin. He hasn’t done much in the season series thus far but with three goals in his last four games and six in his last 10, Ovechkin could play a big role here.

As much as I love Fleury, he is expected to sit out this game. In that case, you have to think that Ovechkin and his league-leading 18 PPG will be the difference maker. Take the Capitals on the moneyline at betting odds of +118 with BetOnline Sportsbook to score the much-needed win at home.